Shoes in the Pandemic: Sole Searching

Shoes in the Pandemic: Sole Searching

Digital, virtual, WFH on Zoom or Teams—no medium for connectedness needs footwear. Where does that leave the shoe industry?

On Monday, April 27, roughly a month after German sports goods manufacturer Adidas launched its hugely successful #Hometeam campaign in response to the coronavirus outbreak, Kasper Rorsted, the company’s CEO went on record about the “massive losses” for Q1 and those projected down the year. With 70 per cent of its stores closed worldwide, Adidas reports a 97 per cent collapse in net income from its continuing operations. In an interview to Bloomberg TV, Rorsted, however, was sportingly optimistic. “People locked into apartments or houses for four, six, eight or ten weeks, as has been the case in many places in the world, really want to go out and move and exercise and walk or run,” he said.

Not surprisingly, Adidas’s strategy for this year includes a cut on marketing spends, but acceleration on investments in digital and e-commerce. Rorsted’s statement published by a number of business and marketing websites says, “e-commerce sales for the brand were up by 35 per cent in the first quarter of 2020. 55 per cent of this figure was contributed by sales from March itself, with the numbers turning into triple digits at the beginning of April as more countries went into lockdown.”


Photo: Adidas

An image from the Adidas #Hometeam campaign.

Adidas though is only one instance among shoe brands figuring out whether to walk or run with the situation. The entire global footwear business is in sole searching mode.

Boots Will Go For a Hike while Flats Will Stand Tall

For international brands, this means taking stock of returned or piled up inventory in closed stores, shifting investment from marketing spends, sponsorships of physical events or celebrity endorsements to e-commerce. Most importantly, re-prioritising of footwear “categories”.

Usually the demand for boots and a variety of closed shoes starts from October onwards in India peaking by mid-January when discounts start. This year though boots, stilettos and blingy footwear will, in all probability, take a walk. Running shoes, sneakers, slip-ons, moccasins and sandals will hold their ground. Heard of inverted symbols in advertisement speak? This is how they stack up.


Photo: Instagram/aprajitatoorofficial

Kolhapuri slippers designed by Aprajita Toor.

Puneet Behal, VP Business, Steve Madden India seems to agree. “There will be a category shift in footwear from high-heeled sandals, bling and boots to casual comfortable footwear like sneakers, flats, open sandals, flip flops, casual closed shoes,” he says. Behal adds that while this will be the dominant trend, companies also expect some amount of feel good buying after things return to normalcy later this year. “Even if that means buying footwear that consumers may not need.”

For now, all digital mediums that enable carrying on of businesses are indifferent to footwear. No video conferencing, Insta live sessions, Webinars or meetings on Zoom or Teams necessitates that a participant be trendily or even appropriately shod. You could be barefoot or in home flip-flops while making some of the most difficult decisions or conceiving brilliant new projects.

Yet, “category shift”, as Behal calls it, will determine the way forward. Not simplistically. For the market, as a sum total, has a hierarchy of brands at play. If Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin or Tod’s sit on the top of the pyramid as luxury brands, and Steve Madden, Aldo and Charles & Keith are in the premium space, there are “value brands in the market too. Bata, Liberty, Converse, Relaxo, Paragon among others. They may be cash strapped sooner compared to bigger companies and may eventually see more store shutdowns. That said, the footwear they sell costs less, lasts reasonably long and by design is not aimed to be high fashion or season dependent—so their inventories may remain relevant longer.


Shoes on display at a Steve Madden store.

Behal believes that competition (for Steve Madden) brands—like Aldo and Charles & Keith for instance—may liquidate existing inventory by pushing discounts to stay afloat and manage cash flow. “Steve Madden India intends to invest the right kind of messaging changes in the brand communication, visual merchandising in stores and staff communication,” he says, adding that they intend to double omnichannel business and pushing online sales with focus on distant selling to customers.

My Soul, Your Sole

Adaptability and availability apart, messaging is what consumers will remember after the dust settles. A new report by communications firm Edelman that was published by Time used interviews with 12,000 people in several countries to understand brand recall via responsibility. As quoted in Time, 71 per cent respondents said, “If during this time they perceive that a brand is putting profit over people, they will lose trust in that brand forever”. While 77 per cent said, “they want brands only to speak about products in ways that show they are aware of the crisis and the impact on people’s lives.”

If you track the narrative back to shoe brands, empathetic communication by some has emerged as an enticing idea. Adidas has used 60 per cent of its existing assets to bring daily new content and empowering ideas to the #Hometeam campaign that is being called its “most effective ever”. It includes home marathons, mind and body training with Adidas runners, coaches and captains, and a free three-month premium membership on the training app. In India, value brand Bata jumped into the COVID-19 battle by donating washable footwear to hospitals and manufactured 5000 masks in its Batanagar unit near Kolkata by early April from the fabric used for shoe linings. Nike, the global giant has committed $17.5 million to COVID-19 response efforts across the world. Reebok gave a cash donation of €3 million to WHO (World Health Organisation)’s COVID-19 Solidarity Relief Fund in Europe plus €1.25 million to the China Youth Development Fund. Besides that, it supplied PPE to frontline workers, and 50 per cent discounts on all purchases to first responders, military members, nurses and educators.

Walking the talk is a well-worn cliché, but that is what it amounts to. Not to forget bright new business ideas that will survive, no matter what. As an instance, Behal talks of disruptive and smart collaborations with other players and stakeholders in the market from beauty brands to credit cards.

So let us stand by and see if we will shop Steve Madden on Nykaa or get Amex card points for every sole mate we acquire.

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